A recent Sunday issue of the Chicago Tribune (May 23) ran a front-page feature on the Millennials that got my attention. For those who do not follow this generational descriptor the Millennials are the generation born between 1977 and 1998. The older Millennials came of age around 2000 (they were 23) and now include adults 33 years of age and under. There are 75 million Millennials in America! (There are only 51 million adults in Generation X, those born between 1965-1976, thus the generation that followed my own, the Baby Boom.) This Chicago Tribune article focused on the older (?) Millennials (21-33).

young-adults The Chicago Tribune feature focused principally on Millennials in the job market. It showed how hard it is for Millennials to find good jobs in the present market. One 29 year-old man is moving (a common thing for Millennials) again and again and hopes to soon land something in New York. Nearing age 30 the one thing Andy Gleeson could tell Bonnie Miller Rubin (the writer of the Tribune article) was that his life was far from settled. That is, so far as the research shows, the common experience of Millennials. Said Andy Gleeson, “I thought by the time I reached 30, I’d be a lot further along in my career. But most of my friends are in the same situation.” The class of 2010 is hearing about great challenges in commencement speeches but the good jobs are scarce and many will have to return home to live with their parents, if they have parents that are still married. (Many will return to two homes or to a single-parent home.) The point, however, is clear: gaining a college degree and turning 21 means very little today. Millennials have stalled on the road to financial security. “Parents helped finance an expensive college education only to have their child return home to live in the basement,” as one researcher put it. Establishing an independent household is simply more difficult than ever, at least in our lifetime.

In 1960, 77% of women and 65% of men had acquired traditional markers of maturity by age 30: leaving home, completing school, full-time employment, marriage and family. In 2005 those numbers had plummeted to 27% of women and 39% of men, respectively. (The lower percentage of women might be indicative of the fact that far more women finish college now than men, but I am not sure.)

A Harvard study says that it can now take up to age 34 to step into those once traditional adult roles in society. This, by the way, is one reason that the new health care legislation allows young adults beyond age 22 to remain covered by their parents health insurance policy. (The U.S. invests little money in this demographic compared to some other Western nations. Expect, however, that the present administration will address this more than previous ones since it shows far more personal and political interest in this generation, one reason this age group voted for this president in large numbers.)

Mary Waters, a sociologist at Harvard who contributed to a major study of the Millennial generation notes: “We’re in this period of rapid change . . . and institutions just haven’t caught up.” Andy Gleeson, cited earlier from the Chicago Tribune feature, lives a life so different from that of his mother. She was married at 19, became a parent at 25 and, with just a high school diploma, landed a good job at State Farm Insurance in Bloomington (IL). She has remained in that one job ever since. This scenario is going to be extremely rare for the Millennials.

Many Millennials are going back for more education, returning to pursue an advanced degree in a field that interests them and seems more likely to help them land a good job. In 1970 1.03 million Americans continued their education beyond college while in 2007 the number had reached 2.7 million. But even this is not working out as most had hoped. Where a high school diploma could once land you a good job twenty-five years ago, and a college degree could land you an excellent job, today you get nowhere unless you have a graduate degree but even this is no guarantee in 2010.

The job site CollegeGrad.com did an online poll and found 64% of 2009 graduates are living back home in the nest. Most graduates, if employed, hold more than one job and many of these jobs have absolutely nothing to do with the degree the young adult did in college. More students are going to college than ever before but fewer and fewer are finding the jobs and a life that they had hoped for in their teen years.

One 28 year-old woman, who moved back to her home in suburban Chicago recently, summed it up when she said, “I never would have thought I’d be where I’m at now. I thought I’d be doing art and married. But we’re all doing the best we can . . . just trying to figure out life.”

As a Christian, and as a teacher of evangelism, it is this last statement that stuck with me. I think this young woman speaks for multitudes when she says, “We’re just trying to figure out life.”

Millennials are very open to “figuring out life.” They tend to celebrate diversity and remain optimistic, individualistic, self-inventive young adults. They are also the generation that is re-writing the rules in the wider culture. They grew up with the Internet, assume the importance of technology and multitask with amazing skill. While Generation X declared their independence from others the Millennials actually believe friends and family matter a great deal.

Millennials were raised during the most “child-centric period” in American history. Perhaps this explains their self-confidence, which just might be misplaced. But there are things about Millennials that should grab our attention if we want to reach them with the good news. They are typically team-oriented and will often band together to date and socialize rather than pairing off and going it alone. And they like structure in the workplace. They acknowledge and respect positions and titles and want a relationship with those they work with as well as with their boss. This makes them very different from Gen-X , a generation that loves independence and a hands-off style.

Millennials are seriously “trying to figure out life.” They share one thing in common if nothing else—they are in need of mentoring. They respond well to personal attention and friendship that involves sacrificial time investment. I love meeting with Millennials. I do it regularly and they inspire me like few Christians I know.

I have personally taught Christian Millennials for the past seven years at the graduate level. My students fit this profile perfectly. Even those who are married seem to fit it. I have never had such interesting, confident, searching and open young adults. They will rise to a challenge unlike the previous generation so long as they see that it will serve others and help them reach for the dream that they still cherish. These Millennials may
be “stuck on the road to
adulthood,” as the Chicago Tribune story implies, but they are also wide-open to the challenge of following Christ in serious discipleship. I hope I get to teach them for many years to come and I urge every church to seriously work at understanding this generation better. To know Millennials is to realize the up-side of this large group of young adults who will, sooner than later, shape the new America.